Zoe Gardner on asylum after Brexit: “The new rules attack the fundamental principle of refugee protection”

In March, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she would be undertaking the most sweeping reforms to the UK’s asylum system in decades. Human rights groups and a number of organisations who work with migrants and asylum seekers have raised grave concerns about the proposals 

We talked to Zoe Gardner, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, about the reforms, what they mean, and how – if at all – they relate to Brexit. 

Can you start by giving us a quick overview of what the government is trying to do? 

The new rules attack the fundamental principle of refugee protection based on entering a safe country to seek sanctuary.

They mean almost every asylum seeker that makes their way to the UK is at risk of being denied and sent off to any other part of the world the government can make a deal to receive them. Only the few people hand picked from refugee camps and resettled to the UK would be considered ‘legitimate’ refugees, which is nonsense. Being a refugee is about needing protection in a new place to live in safety, not about how you travel to escape persecution.

What would be the consequences of these proposals for human rights and the rights of refugees? 

As there are no legal visas or travel permits for asylum seekers to come to the UK, the majority are forced into dangerous irregular journeys over land and sea. The government is saying these people will all be denied protection in the UK, but in practice this just means they’ll wait for long periods in limbo while the government tries to cut a deal with some other country to take them in instead.

We don’t have any deal in place currently to send people off to other parts of the world, and we’ve seen the backlogs and terrible conditions asylum seekers are already housed in even before this system creates much greater delays. This Home Secretary has proven that she can’t be trusted to treat people with dignity or provide a system designed to protect those in need.

If she can’t find another country to send asylum seekers to, and they are finally recognised in our system as being refugees fleeing persecution, she has said she will give them less rights than refugees normally have. She’ll keep them in a temporary status with the threat of removal always hanging over them. This is no way to treat people who have fled persecution and torture. They need a stable, secure status so they can build a home, recover from their trauma, and be part of our society.

What has this got to do with Brexit? Wasn’t our asylum system always separate from the EU? 

Until now, asylum seekers who had transited other European countries could be returned to the first EU country they entered under the Dublin Regulation. Under the same system, family members of refugees who live in the UK could travel from other European countries to us. It was far from a perfect system, but at least everybody who was recognised as a refugee in the UK was treated equally, family reunification was possible, and no one was at risk of being sent to literally any country the Home Secretary is able to cut a deal with, which meant they were a lot safer.

Now that Brexit is over, Nigel Farage and the far right are putting pressure on the government to deny asylum to people making the crossing from France in small boats. There is no longer any prospect of sending those people back to France, so instead we are going to warehouse them for long periods in a system designed to deny them their rights any other desperate way we can find.

So which bits of the proposals couldn’t happen if we were still in the EU? 

The UK always had an opt-out from EU Home Affairs legislation. We were signed up to minimum standards rules in the EU asylum system, but we didn’t sign up to other EU measures, for example placing a time limit on detention. Unfortunately, especially because of that opt-out, the EU protections for refugees have always been a matter for the UK to take or leave. However, we almost certainly would not have left the Dublin Regulation, so at least it would have been possible to reunite refugee families where members were trapped in Greece, Italy or France. Now refugees in this situation are likely to be denied family reunion.

What do you think should happen instead, and how?

We need real solutions that offer desperate people an alternative to getting on a boat or a lorry to make a dangerous crossing into the UK. This means safe travel documents for asylum seekers at our border with France, letting them enter the UK in an orderly way, and enter the asylum system.

Next, we need an asylum system that functions properly, that houses people in dignity and gives them good decisions on their claim in a reasonable amount of time. This proposal risks limiting rights to access competent legal representation, appeal rights and decent accommodation for asylum seekers. All of those are bad ideas that will make the system less efficient and more brutal. The numbers of asylum seekers trying to build new lives in the UK have been low and steady for over a decade. It should be perfectly possible to offer them an efficient and humane asylum process that looks for how it can help people, rather than reasons to exclude them.